Phelps leaves Rome in style

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ROME | Michael Phelps had every reason to be satisfied after the Beijing Olympics. Yet he kept insisting there was more to do in the pool.

Even coming off his longest layoff and the embarrassment of being photographed inhaling from a marijuana pipe, Phelps turned in another remarkable performance at world championships. He completed it Sunday night by helping the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team set the 43rd world record of the fastest meet in history.

OK, he didn’t win another eight golds. This time, he made do with five golds and a silver. Still, Phelps showed plenty of fire, even when there’s really nothing left to prove.

“I never want to look back on my career and ask, ‘What if?’ ” he said.

Swimming the butterfly leg, Phelps helped the U.S. pull away from Germany and Australia to win in 3 minutes, 27.28 seconds. That easily broke the mark of 3:29.34 set by the Americans at last summer’s Olympics.

“That relay brings out the best in me,” Phelps said. “It doesn’t matter how much energy I have - it’s all going to go into every race. That’s one of the things that I enjoy most: stepping out onto the blocks no matter what kind of shape I’m in.”

Phelps took six months off after his Beijing triumph, drew a three-month suspension from competition after the infamous pipe photo - and he was still honored as the outstanding male swimmer of the championships. Italy’s Federica Pellegrini received the female award at the final major meet for high-tech bodysuits, which will be banned Jan. 1.

Phelps said he’s not concerned about turning back to the clock on attire. He’s got plenty of goals in mind.

“I have more things I want to do,” he said. “That’s why I wanted to come back. I don’t care if anyone says it was a bad idea or not; it’s something that I wanted and that’s why I’m doing it.”

His coach, Bob Bowman, said Phelps will get all of two weeks off before he’s back in the pool, focusing on London in 2012.

“I’ve got to be in better shape,” Phelps said. “I think without taking six months off, that will do it.”

When he had the final gold of the event in his possession, Phelps made his usual climb into the stands to get a hug from his mother and sister. It was Debbie Phelps who got her son fired up for Rome by saying she wanted to see him swim in the Eternal City, not just get in a little sightseeing.

“I didn’t want her to come here and not swim well in front of her,” he said.

He found other reasons to be motivated - notably when Serbia’s Milorad Cavic tried to get in his head before their showdown in the 100 fly. Both swimmers became the first to break 50 seconds, but Phelps touched first in a world record.

“A lot of motivating comments were said,” Phelps said without mentioning Cavic by name. “That always gets me going. That’s something that helped me along the way.”

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